Ryan Chiao, Photo Editor

New Haven Public Schools and Yale’s Dwight Hall have partnered to provide a homework helpline for district students, staffed by Yale College students.

The helpline, which first opened in early November, serves students every Sunday through Thursday from 5 to 7 p.m. over Google Meet. Shortly after schools first shut down in March, the district’s Office of Youth, Family and Community Engagement launched a “parent helpline” for parents who have general inquiries or are in need of food, rental assistance, school supplies and other resources. After many parents called the helpline seeking homework help for their children, which the helpline could not offer, NHPS officials reached out to Yale’s Office of New Haven Affairs for help. 

Director of Public School Partnerships Claudia Merson connected the district with Dwight Hall student leaders. Following months of planning, the district and Dwight Hall launched a “soft rollout” of the homework helpline for select NHPS Title I school students in early November. Over the course of the helpline’s first week, it was expanded to all 19 Title I schools in the district, providing much-needed relief for struggling students and frustrated parents.

“It sounds so simple, but I’m a parent and I don’t necessarily understand homework from elementary school, and I was good at math,” Maria Parente, Yale Coordinator for Community Programs in Science and NHPS parent, said. “Having access to someone who can answer questions is really comforting, especially in this time where there’s so much stress and everyone’s at home.”

As of Wednesday night, more than 50 students — mostly in elementary school — have logged onto the helpline since its rollout, with an average of 10-15 students receiving help on any given night. According to Parente, there is at least one bilingual volunteer available each night to support the district’s high number of English Language Learners in NHPS Title I schools. As of 2018, 15.9 percent of students in NHPS are English Language Learners, over twice the rate for the state of Connecticut.

Students like Rachel Pontious ’23 helped quickly assemble a fleet of volunteers to respond to the district’s calls. Pontious, a sophomore taking a leave of absence, decided to apply to be the student leader of the helpline because it offered a way to dedicate her gap year to “the public good.” Now, she serves as a logistical coordinator for the hotline: when students enter her Google Meet room, she matches them with an available student volunteer.

She added that her job also includes “making people feel comfortable — being a welcoming presence.”

In addition to providing direct assistance to students, the hotline program is also meant to help district teachers by identifying topics students need additional help with. After each session, volunteers fill out a log where they record the students’ identifying information and what they required help with. The data is then circled back to classrooms for use by the teachers.

Less intentionally, Pontious said the program also evolved into a social platform. The helpline’s Google Meet link is permanent and stays open even when the hotline is not actively running.

“They are so starved of interaction with their peers,” Pontious said of the students. “Kids will just get on to hang out with their friends outside the hotline hours, and so sometimes I’ll join the hotline and there will already be kids there, just hanging out. They’re sort of using it as a social space.”

NHPS Parent Engagement Coordinator Daniel Diaz told the News that the Dwight Hall partnership is another instance where the Yale community has stepped up to support NHPS. He cited the Yale Education Tutoring Initiative’s regular tutoring sessions and the Office of New Haven Affairs Pathways to Science Program as other examples.

Diaz added that the homework helpline is part of a larger network of virtual support that has emerged during the pandemic. Similar programs include a district-run “family support call center” and tech support service. The comprehensive list of NHPS resources for families can be found on their website.

NHPS has operated on a virtual-learning basis since March 13.

Christian Robles | christian.robles@yale.edu

Owen Tucker-Smith | owen.tucker-smith@yale.edu